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I am struggling to find an appropriate and convenient wording to describe that something exists only one time in the whole world. Usually the word "unique" implies exactly that, but it's been misused for things which are not really unique that it lost its power for this purpose imho.

As an example here are some sentences about a painting and why I don't think the phrase is good:

  • This is a unique painting.
    • It feels like there could be still a copy of the painting out there and unique relates to the feeling / atmosphere / other feature or to the unique kind of the painting. Also, as I mentioned before, unique doesn't carry over enough power to the uniqueness.
  • This painting has been painted only once.
    • This is misleading in the way that you might understand the process of drawing the painting has been done only once. Also has a bad sound to it.
  • This painting is a single copy.
    • Maybe it's just me, but having the word "copy" to describe something exists only once seems contradictory.
  • This painting has been manufactured only once.
    • Sounds very cumbersome and not fitting to anything that's not been literally manufactured. Would rather fit a plaster figure more than anything else.
  • This painting is a unicum
    • This might be it, but I've never ever heard anyone actually say this, so I am afraid this might throw people off and a non-native speaker easily might not know this word.
  • This painting exists only one time in the world. / This painting does not exist a second time on the world.
    • This is kind of what I am looking for in terms of the message, but both versions sound very cumbersome and are too long.

I am looking for a very short expression or just one word which doesn't sound cumbersome, doesn't leave room for interpretation and is well known

  • 1
    This painting is the only one of its kind? – user337391 Mar 4 '19 at 1:33
  • I don't see anything wrong with unique myself. Even if there are multiple copies of something, the thing it represents is unique, and each copy is a unique instance. In fact, I can't think of any better word. The problem is in how you're applying the concept. – Jason Bassford Mar 4 '19 at 4:30
  • @JasonBassford you perfectly described the problem with "unique". I am also looking for something that doesn't leave room for same instances of something. In the way you write it, an iPhone is unique (and Apple definitely applied "unique" definitely in their promos) although millions of people have an iPhone. In fact, pretty much everything is unique as an instance. I am looking for something without peer instances, too. – Maxim Zubarev Mar 4 '19 at 11:09
  • Painting might not be the best example to use here, because many people use that word in such a way that each painting by definition has only one instance. They would thus say that there is no need for a word that makes that explicit. If a painter chooses to paint the same scene in the same way twice, they would say that these are two different, but very similar paintings, not that the same painting has been painted twice. – jsw29 Jan 6 at 16:57
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one-off TFD

An isolated occurrence; something that happens just once.

As in:

2003 Washington Post (Home ed.) 12 Aug. 13/1 Iraq is obviously pivotal to American national security. But it is a one-off, an unusual case that is unlikely to recur.

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An original with no copies in existence.

  • Also “one of a kind” – Jim Jan 5 at 6:16
  • This answer captures well how people normally speak about paintings, which is the specific example that the OP uses, but it is not obvious that it will work as the answer to what seems to be the general question that the OP is asking. – jsw29 Jan 5 at 18:39
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The word you need is Singular.

"...unique doesn't carry over enough power to the uniqueness."? To begin, pardon my gripe, whatever the word unique has come to mean, now or in the future it is the one and only word that can carry over its meaning.

Failing unique you can ignore words that allow for copies of the given work. It is only the original work of art you are describing. A photo in the magazine with your notes will not count as the artwork itself.

The word you need is Singular. This means a single article with no other like it. Pertaining to the original you may call it a singular creation, no copies need apply.

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